Gregg Popovich's decision to use Pau Gasol off the bench in San Antonio's last five games is his most astute, necessary move of the season. While the Spurs signed Gasol over the off-season to replace Tim Duncan as their starting center, his positive impact on offense no longer outweighs the laundry list of weaknesses he has on the other end. He can't guard multiple positions, close out to the three-point line, consistently position himself in the right spot to grab rebounds, or jump.
For the Spurs, it's a liability, and when Gasol broke his hand in January and had to sit out, the difference was stark: they allowed only 98.4 points per 100 possessions in the 15 games he missed, which led the league by an incredible 4.4 points.
Gasol turns 37 years old in July. He's headed to the Hall of Fame and still helps as an offensive enabler with fantastic passes and a reliable set shot, but this move was a long time coming, maybe even from the day he first signed with San Antonio. It's a migration that has been well documented all around the league: molasses-slow bruisers are best utilized off the bench, if at all. Think Greg Monroe, Randolph, Kanter, Jahlil Okafor, Al Jefferson, Nikola Vucevic. And now that it's finally happened in San Antonio, the Spurs have an opportunity to be even better than they already are.
Off the bench, Gasol's defensive flaws become less of a burden—opponents can't attack him as effectively with reserves as they can with starters, and he's still a low-post artisan and dangerous spot-up threat at the other end. This may not be a hefty role at this stage of his career, but while his minutes may be reduced, he's playing at increased capacity: Gasol's usage rate is about 5 percent higher off the bench than it was in the starting lineup.
Even Gasol, who has openly griped about not starting in the past, recently admitted as much: "With the second unit, I have more opportunities to score, to play my game. With the first unit, it's a little more limited, my options."
Take three-pointers. Gasol went five-for-seven above the break in his first three outings off the bench after going nine-for-25 in 39 games before that. Maybe the increased volume from three-point range is just a blip, a random surge from a small-sample size that will level out sooner than later. Or maybe it's a subtle and imperative shift to maximize the Spurs' attack. Gasol is a nightmare against most bench units, groups that don't have as much versatility and/or punch to take advantage of his defensive weaknesses. They also increase the likelihood of him being free to hide out on a non-threatening wing or big who can't space the floor.
Gasol is still an effective post scorer, too, especially when defenses try to switch a wing on him; according to Synergy Sports, the Wizards' Otto Porter and the Pacers' C.J. Miles are the only players more efficient in spot-up situations (minimum 90 possessions) this season. You can program a watch to Gasol's shot, but he's also the rare big who's plenty comfortable driving on a closeout against certain matchups.
Defenders are petrified to leave Gasol whenever he's spotted up in the corner or out on the wing—a quality that may keep him in the league until he's 40.
Gasol's move to the bench doesn't just make him more useful, however; it also makes the rest of the Spurs a better team.
Since Gasol broke his hand in late January, San Antonio's most common starting lineup has been Tony Parker, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Dewayne Dedmon in Gasol's place at center. That unit has outscored opponents by 45 points in 141 minutes. As the league trends more towards shooting, versatility and athleticism in the frontcourt, this group is more ideal to both score on and stop a majority of opposing starting fives.
Dedmon is a better all-around defender and rim protector than Gasol. He provides more mobility on the perimeter and serves as one of the league's most effective lob threats out of the pick-and-roll—perfect beside Aldridge, who prefers to pop and stay on the outside. He has the second-highest net rating on the roster; the Spurs outscore opponents by 12.2 points per 100 possessions when Dedmon is on the court and "only" 7.5 points when he sits.
Still not convinced that Gasol should be moved to the bench? Here's one more number: San Antonio allows about 10 fewer points per 100 possessions when Aldridge is paired with Dedmon as opposed to Gasol. The Gasol-David Lee duo, meanwhile, has performed extraordinarily well on both ends.
Gasol's move to the bench, and its ripple effect on the rest of the Spurs, may be enough to spring them past the Golden State Warriors and into the No. 1 seed in the West. That'd be nice, but the only thing that matters to an organization with five titles in the last 19 seasons is how this change can positively affect a few probable playoff matchups.
If Gasol were starting against, say, the Houston Rockets, he'd either get tortured in Clint Capela–James Harden pick-and-rolls or detached from the paint trying to sabotage Ryan Anderson cannonballs. Gasol's defensive assignments aren't simplified just because San Antonio brings him off the bench, especially if the Rockets go small with Trevor Ariza at the four, but he's far less vulnerable when Harden is off the court, and better suited to exploit Houston's interior defense when someone like Nene is.
Same goes for the Warriors, where Dedmon is approximately a million miles ahead of Gasol in his ability to switch every screen and force three-point shooters like Steph Curry and Klay Thompson to drive and kick until they either turn it over or take a contested two-point shot.
The Warriors' bench units don't offer much relief, though. It may be that Gasol simply doesn't play all that much against the best the West has to offer, but San Antonio can probably get away with hiding him out on Andre Iguodala, Matt Barnes, David West, or JaVale McGee. If Kevin Durant's knee issue lingers deep into Spring, Gasol can leverage his size and intelligence against inexperienced reserves who won't have Curry or Draymond Green as a guide.
This applies to the Oklahoma City Thunder (with Enes Kanter) and Memphis Grizzlies (with Zach Randolph), too.
San Antonio owns one of the most adaptable rosters in the league. They can be successful with jumbo lineups or small, zippy groups. Removing Gasol from the starting lineup is a necessary step toward modernization—addition by subtraction for that first five unit. It also gives the bench the luxury of having a player who can prevent the offense from stalling when Leonard and Aldridge both rest, someone they can feed at the end of the first and third quarters to maintain and extend leads afforded by their starting lineup. Gasol is found money.
It's a wonderful advantage for any contender, and the Spurs, who were already on pace to win 63 games, now have it.
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